The last few months have been a time of reflection and rejuvenation for me, as I attended to personal and professional matters, and stepped away—as much as possible—from political matters. But Labor Day has now past, and the traditional summer “vacation” has ended, so now it is time for me to return to the political issues and races of 2014, which are just now starting to heat-up.
During my hiatus, I accumulated a fairly long list of issues that I could write about when I returned. While I will write about many of these issues over the next few months (and I will return to the issue of Education reform once we get a written opinion from the trial judge in Austin in the school-finance litigation), I want to start with what I perceive as the common thread that runs through so many of these issues: the need for the Republican Party to govern.
The need to govern on first principles
Now those of you who are awake and living in Texas will immediately respond by saying something like, “Ed, isn’t that what we’ve been doing for the last two decades?” And the answer I would give them is, frankly, “no”—at least, not the way I mean it.
To govern, a party must have first principles that it seeks to enshrine in public policy; to do so, the party must work to elect officeholders who will infuse its principles into law and then administer those laws effectively and creatively to achieve ends that are consistent with the first principles. Principles are just that—they are principles, not ideology. The process of enshrining principles into law, requires positive commitment and persuasion, and—yes—the ability to compromise by making wise and timely trade-offs and choices. Then, governing requires competence to administer the laws effectively and creatively, so that the civil society that is realized closely approximates the civil society we had hoped to create and maintain.
We once had leaders in both parties who understood this process. As recently as the Nixon and Reagan Presidencies, we had leaders who understood the guiding principles of American foreign policy (first survival with, and then victory over Communism). Then, with Reagan, came a man who understood the deepest first principles of our country and our party, and who knew how to enshrine those principles in public policy through commitment, persuasion, and compromise. Together, Nixon and Reagan spawned a generation of competent men and women capable of effectively and creatively administer government.
The move from first principles to ideology
Unfortunately, as the Clinton years turned into the Bush 43 years, and then into the Obama years, both parties slowly moved away from competing over principles to fighting over ideology; and worse, the GOP has waged an internal battle over ideology—masked as the perennial fight over whom among us is the most “conservative”—that has left our shared principles flailing to survive. The effects of these battles between the parties and with the GOP can be seen in the sordid responses to so many of the issues that have percolated to the surface this summer, including the pathetic handwringing going on all over Washington about whether and how to address the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime—which, hour-by-hour, day-by-day is slowly ceding the balance of global power and responsibility held by Washington and Europe since 1945 to Moscow, Beijing and Tehran, regardless of the ultimate decision and action that will be taken. Any American over the age of 45 should be very concerned about this drift in global influence.
In the meantime, the Obama years’ shift to an “all butter, no guns” ideology of government is creating a federal government that will be too large and irresponsible to ever govern at home, or maintain the peace abroad, effectively. On the other hand, at state and local levels where the GOP maintains the majority of political power in this country, conservatism has the greatest opportunity it has had in a generation to show that it is an effective governing philosophy. All the GOP needs is a return to the principles that unite us, and an end to the civil war that has divided us; and a commitment to the future, rather than a rigid adherence to the past.
Texas and Harris County as leaders
For Republicans in Texas and Harris County, this process is important not just for the county and the state, but also to the nation. We Republicans in Texas often lose perspective of the fact that we are to American Conservatism what California and New York are to American Liberalism—the outlier state at the farthest end of the political spectrum. Yes, this does mean that we are, more often than not, trend setters for other conservatives, and we get frustrated by the more moderate Republicans in our midst and in other parts of the country. But it also means that most of the rest of our fellow countrymen, including our fellow Republicans see us both as trend setters and as kooks—much like the clothes buyers who have to evaluate the fashion designers who exhibit their new designs in New York, Paris and Milan every year. And, just like the designers at the cutting-edge of the fashion world who value the purity of their creativity over the value of their designs to the general public, we too often value the purity of our “conservatism” over the effectiveness of our ability to enshrine our principles into the real-world policies that our countrymen live with every day of their lives. If we in Texas and Harris County want to be the leaders of a new era of American Conservatism, we need to help design and promote policies that will allow our elected officials to use our principles to address real problems, rather than enshrine the latest ideological fad into bad (and ultimately irrelevant) law.
Defining and deploying first principles
Virtually every Republican I have ever met believes in a constitutionally limited federal government, where the power and responsibility over most daily issues are handled locally and privately by individuals, families, businesses, and civic or religious organizations, or locally and publicly by state and local governments. We believe in the prosperity created by free markets and free trade, which creates a tide that lifts all boats. We believe in a national defense that protects not just our borders and our citizens from immediate danger, but that preserves the balance of power that has allowed for the greatest era of economic growth and prosperity the world has ever known. And we believe in the development of personal character and virtue, which leads us to live a life in which we make more right choices than wrong as we develop relationships, create families and build neighborhoods.
If we believe in these principles, then let’s stop fighting with each other and start building a party that will elect men and women who will enshrine these principles into policy: who will cost-effectively build the infrastructure we need to maintain our communities, reform the schools we will need to educate our children, and promote health through preserving the local doctor-patient relationship; who creatively will bring the message and the policies of our principles into the communities in our region in which too many of our neighbors are under-educated, under-employed and over-incarcerated; and who will promote the right choices in life that slowly, steadily and wisely develop character and virtue, over the constant condemnation of what we perceive as wrong choices that simply separate us and our principles from our neighbors.
An older era has been slipping away this summer. If we conservatives want an effective voice in shaping the new, emerging era in a way that preserves what is best about our society, we need to stop fighting over ideology and start promoting our shared principles.
The passing of District Attorney Mike Anderson
On a last point, I want briefly to address the passing of Mike Anderson.
I first met Mike, and his wife, Devon, while I was running as a judicial candidate in 2007-08 and Devon was running for re-election. I grew to like both Mike and Devon personally, and to respect the work they had been doing as prosecutors and district-court judges. The news of Mike’s passing on Saturday was so sad.
To Devon, I think I am expressing the feeling of most members of the Republican family in Harris County when I say that you and your children—and Mike—are in our thoughts and prayers; and we are here for you, just as you and Mike were here for us, if and when you need a helping hand over the months and years ahead.
To the rest of us, we have some soul-searching to do. We have been embroiled in two difficult primaries over the office of District Attorney since December, 2007, when the scandals that brought down Chuck Rosenthal became public, and we now are facing two election cycles in a row when this office will again be on the ballot. As for the last cycle, though Mike won the primary handily, the contest was very bitter among our party activists. Because I also respected Judge Lykos and some of the reforms she had proposed and started to implement, I found the last primary cycle so difficult—two good, conservative public servants, with somewhat different approaches, were fighting over the future of the criminal justice system. We cannot repeat the bitterness of the last primary and hope to keep this office in Republican hands—and the fate of the criminal justice system in this county hangs in the balance.
Soon Governor Perry will appoint someone to succeed Mike, and there will be a contested primary. The names I am hearing so far, for either the appointment or the primary race, are all good and qualified Republicans. Let’s keep that in mind as the race unfolds and make our choice on merit, rather than on one of the many issues that seem to always divide us. That approach would be the greatest legacy we could give to Mike’s memory and tenure in public office.